Articles

This Air Force unit caught spy satellite photos as they fell from space

When the Cold War was at its peak, America began spying on the Russians from space with the Corona Program. Corona used a system of satellites that flew over Russia, taking photos of sensitive and classified areas.


The problem with the early spy satellites was that digital photography had not been invented yet and digital scanning was in its infancy. The earliest spy satellites had to take their photos with film and then send the film back to earth.

Graphic: National Reconnaissance Office

So, the Air Force set up the 6593rd Test Group and then the 6594th Test Squadron at Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii. These units flew under the path of the satellites and caught the film that the satellites dropped to earth. Some of the first objects ever designed to re-enter the atmosphere, the canisters were about the size of a garbage can and carried large parachutes to slow their descent.

When they first entered the atmosphere, the canisters would resemble falling stars as the air around the fast-moving object compressed and began to burn. After the chute deployed, the canister slowed down and 6594th and 6593rd pilots would have to spot the canisters and snag them with a recovery system installed on modified cargo planes. They originally used the C-119 Flying Boxcar but switched over to C-130s.

Photo: US Air Force

The canisters used a Mark 8 parachute with a cone that up from the center of the parachute. The pilots would spot the canisters and crews would then deploy a "loop" made of nylon rope with brass hooks. The loop trailed beneath the aircraft as the pilot flew directly over the chute, hopefully catching the chute. Using a winch, the crew would then pull the chute and canister into the modified C-119 or C-130 aircraft.

"I liked to recover a parachute close up to the belly of the airplane," said Lt. Col. Harold E. Mitchell, pilot of the first successful midair film recovery, Discoverer 14. "They didn't like that because you could invert the parachute… Many times when the parachute went through, though, it passed close under the belly of the airplane, and went over the top of the loop and it wouldn't deflate. It became a drag chute."

Photo: US Air Force

When the pilot missed the chute or it slipped off the hooks, the canister would fall into the Pacific ocean. For these instances, the units employed rescue swimmers who would deploy off of helicopters to retrieve the capsules.

Each successful recovery provided a treasure trove of imagery. The first successful recovery documented 1,650,000 square miles of the Soviet Union, more than 24 U-2 missions provided.

Over the course of the Cold War, the Corona Program was key in tracking Russian military developments. One of their most important discoveries was showing that the "missile gap" worried over by U.S. planners, a belief that the Soviet Union had drastically more missiles than the U.S., was backward. The U.S. had the larger and more capable stockpile.

The 6593rd deactivated in 1972 and the 6594th followed suit in 1986.

Blake Stilwell contributed to this article.

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History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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The men's department.

Although the Air Force has released very limited guidance on what the new branch will do, how it will roll out, or basically anything at all except that it's called the 'Space Force' and will exist one day, the excitement the idea of a space force brings the military community is palpable.

Judged solely by the sheer volume of Space Force memes.

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So if you're excited to do your part, you can fully engulf yourself in the burgeoning Space Force culture, you can now enjoy the first Space Force song, sure to be shouted at the top of many a Spaceman's lungs every morning during Space-ic Training.

This songified version of President Trump's Space Force announcement was created by The Gregory Brothers, whose YouTube page is packed with pop culture songification. Due to the popular demand for the song to be made into a ringtone via the popular Air Force Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco, the Gregory Brothers responded immediately.

Thanks Air Force amn/nco/snco.

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